Sunday, September 01, 2019

Iconic images and reality

Tonight, TVNZ’s Sunday progamme featured one of the Loading Docs series of short documentaries (video above), this one about Levi Hawken, who is best known to New Zealanders as “the Nek Minnit guy” because of a 2011 viral video he was in. Many of us made assumptions about him based on that video, and it turns out many of us were also wrong about him. He’s so much more than that one iconic image would suggest.

Back in 2011, Hawken made a comedic video with friends, something Wikipedia describes well:
Levi Hawken is a professional skateboarder (for Sector 9) from Dunedin, New Zealand who suffers from ectodermal dysplasia. The condition caused his hair and teeth to grow abnormally, which resulted in him being bullied as a child. In the "nek minnit" video, Hawken appears shirtless with a shaven head; his missing teeth have also been noted by many viewers. The video takes place in a Fairfield, Otago skatepark; Hawken announces, "Left my scooter outside the dairy; nek minnit ...", the camera then tilts to show Hawken's broken scooter. The nine-second-long clip was recorded for South in Your Mouth, an independent skate film by Colin Evans, Hawken's friend; however, the "nek minute" video was uploaded separately. The video was popularised in mid-2011, and was viewed on YouTube 600,000 times by late September 2011; at December 2011, the video had received over 1.5 million views. By August 2018, it had reached 4.4 million. The phrase "nek minute" was the sixth most searched term in New Zealand on internet search engine Google in 2011, and was voted the runner-up in the 2011 "Word of the Year" poll by website Public Address.
The only thing most New Zealanders knew about him was “nek minnit”. Some assumed he was, as he says in the documentary, a “dumb homeless guy”. He’s anything but.

Hawken is an artist, who’d once been a graffiti artist. At some point he decided to stop making “public art” to concentrate on painting and making sculptures from cement, some of which is available for purchase on his website. This is now his passion.

Watching the documentary, I was struck by how poetic he was in talking about his art, and also the video that made him public property for a time. Earlier this year, he told Newshub that he used to say “nek minnit” before the famous video, but he never does any more. Who can blame him for that?

There was one more thing that struck me while watching the documentary. Through his impromptu video, Hawken managed to bring Kiwis together through a shared cultural experience, and that’s not something that happens all that often. However, he was also a victim of that same iconic moment, not the least because people assumed a lot about his intelligence and in so doing helped to perpetuate the bullying he experienced as a child because of his unusual appearance.

Hawken seems to have found a way forward, a path to his own peace and to his own creativity. That’s an awesome thing for anyone, but I hope many people see the documentary, and those who judged him based on that viral video will realise how wrong they were about the real guy, and, better still, take the lesson to never judge someone just by appearance—or viral videos—alone.

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